But behind this myth lies an artistic vision unparalleled in late 19th-century art. Over the course of his troubled career, Gauguin transformed Impressionism’s documentary methods with non-representational ideas of myth, symbolism and abstraction. It was a synthesis of ideas that changed painting for ever, and paved the way for the birth of modern art.
Born in Paris in 1848, the son of a radical journalist, Gauguin spent his early childhood in Peru before he and his mother returned to France. At the age of 17, he joined the French merchant navy and spent the next six years at sea. By the early 1870s, he was working as a stockbroker in Paris and investing in Impressionist works.
Encouraged by Camille Pissarro, Gauguin began to paint in the mid-1870s, and was exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition of 1880. After the crash of the French stock market in 1882, he set out to make a living exclusively through painting. It was a choice that would end in penury, and a complete separation from his wife and family.
As the 1880s progressed, Gauguin lived an increasingly peripatetic existence, visiting Brittany, Panama and Martinique. In 1888, the year in which he produced his symbolist masterpiece, Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888), he spent a famously tumultuous few months with Van Gogh at Arles in the South of France.
By 1895, Gauguin had settled permanently in Tahiti. Syphilitic and penniless, and having heard of the death of his daughter, Aline, he painted his Primitivist masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897) before attempting suicide. In 1901, he fled farther from the art world to the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas.
It was only in 1906, when a major retrospective of his work was held in Paris — three years after his death — that Gauguin’s reputation was firmly established.
Works by Gauguin regularly achieve record-breaking sums at auction. In 2022, his monumental and mysterious painting, Maternité II (1899), set a world auction record for the artist when it sold at Christie’s New York for $105.7 million.